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Isle of May , Scotland. June 2018.

Dave Williams

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Dave Williams

Ever dreamed of being a "Castaway"? For me as a schoolboy it was a very romanic notion and if I'm honest it still has some appeal. I guess there is only so long you can resist the comforts of modern day living though but the benefit of being on an island is that feeling that you are detached and liberated from the rest of the world.

I first visited the Isle of May in 2012 and it's become a love affair, each year I have been called back and each year I have been lucky enough to be accommodated with a week's stay both as a pure visitor and as a volunteer. The first visit was in stark contrast to what is there today and a lot of hard work and effort has gone in to transforming what was basic accommodation with no electricity, just gas for cooking and running very limited refrigeration, and just a chemical "Porta Potty" for toilet facilities.

Back in 2012 and my first visit was inspired by a report I'd read by someone who had stayed there previously and who had witnessed some amazing views of a Merlin, a bird I had always wanted to see and photograph. I persuaded my friend Mike to go with me and that was the beginning of an annual trip we have taken to somewhere in Europe every year since. This year as well as joining me on a trip to Estonia I suggested he came back to "the May" to see the changes for himself. Besides this time we'd be there at the height of the breeding season and not in a cold damp April as we had been back in 2012.

I knew he'd be impressed, the changes have been amazing in such a short period of time.

Our accommodation, the "Low Light", a disused light house has been extended to provide more room, more comfort.

In 2012 the Low Light looked like this

Low Light  Isle of May

In 2018 it has a large extension housing 3 bedrooms, a toilet and a shower room

Low Light    Isle of May

The Low Light is the home of the I.O.M Bird Observatory and to which I belong as a member. The Lighthouse Tower doesn't form a part of the accommodation and it's sad to see it's not getting the benefit of the maintenance it needs.

Maybe a paint company might see this and decide it would make a great before and after advert! One of the problems though is that being an island transporting everything needed for any king of maintenance is a problem. It all has to come by boat although until recently oil supplies to run the still working Main Light came by helicopter drop.

Main Light  Isle of May

That is no longer needed though as the power supply was recently changed to solar.

So that's the attraction then. A small island, just a few miles off the Scottish mainland sharing the accommodation with just 5 other people. There are others to share the island with, there's the warden and his assistant, along with a few researchers who monitor the annual events taking place on the island with  200,000+ nesting seabirds as well as good numbers of breeding seals too.

The hub of their activity is known as Fluke Street, originally built to house generators and a coal store.( lots of interesting background available:- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isle_of_May

Fluke St  Isle of May

the buildings are a 10 minute walk from the Low Light so you still have a feeling of complete isolation, well except for a couple of hours a day when up to 120 day trippers arrive to explore.

And what a place to explore it is too! As well as the islands "industrial" and religious history, you do have all those birds and an opportunity to get up close and personal and to observe the rigours of daily life each of the resident species has to endure.

And endure they do. This year was a particularly bad start when a storm dubbed "the beast from the east" hit the whole of Europe and put the arrival of many birds and their breeding programme back many weeks. This impacted on our visit as much of the hoped for activity we expected to see wasn't happening. This was disappointing but such is the unpredictable way of nature and wildlife.

A minor storm struck whilst we were on the island 

Isle of May, Scotland.

and although it's impact was less than originally feared it was still estimated that as many as 450 Guillemot and Razorbill "nests" might have been washed or blown off the cliff face that took the brunt of the above average sized waves the storm produced.

Isle of May, Scotland.

A beautifully calm sea and idyllic spot

Isle of May, Scotland.

was still a cauldron of waves 24 hours after the storm passed through

Isle of May North Cliffs

Life on the island down the ages has never been easy for the human inhabitants, you can still find yourself marooned there for several days if the boats are unable to dock, but for the bird life it really is a constant fight for survival.



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Dave Williams

There are not that many different species of birds to be found on the Isle of May, it's just the numbers that are staggering!

200,000 thousand plus of which includes over 40,000 pairs of breeding Puffins. Everyone loves a Puffin and it's not just human loves that these enigmatic birds have to cope with. Their everyday struggle for survival is monumental.

Atlantic Puffin

Once the eggs have hatched the Puffins have to fly many miles out to sea , it's estimated as many as 80 miles is not unusual, in search of food. That's of course provided the eggs have hatched as it's not unknown for their nesting burrows to become flooded in particularly bad wet summers.

So who are the villains of the peace?

In fact there are several. Although I don't think that the once nesting Peregrines still stay on the island I may well be wrong. I didn't see one on this visit but in early 2017 I witnessed one fly off with a fully grown adult Puffin.

Peregrine Falcon     Falco Peregrinus

Top of the food chain comes the huge Great Black-backed Gull.

Great Black-backed Gull   Larus marinus

There are several pairs nesting on the island and they are on constant patrol looking for an opportune moment to strike.

Great Black-backed Gull   Larus marinus

They are capable of carrying off an adult Puffin or a small rabbit, often drowning their victim before setting about ripping them apart with their strong bills.

Great Black-backed Gull   Larus marinus

Exposed chicks of Razorbill and Guillemots disappear from their cliff ledge nests in seconds if the parent birds don't keep a constant vigil but it's not just the Great Black-backs that are a threat, their smaller cousins the Lesser Black-backed Gull

. Lesser Black-backed Gull   Larus fuscus

and Herring Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull   Larus fuscus

breed in considerable numbers and they too have chicks to feed.

All three of these Gull species will snatch a chick if the opportunity presents itself and they are not particular as to which species it is either.

I have in the past often witnessed Gull on Gull predation, here a Lesser Black-backed has made off with a Herring Gull chick with the chasing posse no chance of saving the victim.

Herring Gull Isle of May,Scotland 2016

Puffins seem to be the most vulnerable though as it's not just the birds themselves the Gulls are after, it's the food they have searched so long and hard for too that is highly desirable. Both Herring and LBB Gulls harass the returning Puffins in an attempt to make them drop their catch.

Herring Gull ambush

and it's these moments of raw nature that keep drawing me back to witness each time I visit the Isle of May. There is always something new to capture on camera even if the players are largely the same.

Because everything was so late this year the colonies of terns, mainly Arctic,  had barely started to lay eggs, indeed more often than not the birds were not even on the nesting sites but sat on rocks in the harbour with matings still taking place.

My hopes of capturing improved shots of the birds bringing back fish to feed their young was a forlorn hope and instead of this

Artic Tern Sterna Paradisaea

the best I got was the very infrequent view of a bird taking in some water to drink or landing for a bath.

Arctic Tern  Sterna Paradisaea

Arctic Tern  Sterna paradisaea

Hopefully I'll get another chance in the future.

We were lucky in as much as the very first signs of Puffins bringing back food started a day after we arrived and by the end of the week the numbers had increased many times over.

Those shots of a bill full of Sand Eels were once my top ambition as a wildlife photographer

Atlantic Puffin  Fratercula arctica

and although they are still fun to take I now try for something a bit more ambitious.

Atlantic Puffin

although that's not always the case. Sometimes you realise you haven't got the simple shots of the likes of Shags in flight

Common Shag    Phalacrocorax aristotelis

which isn't as easy as it looks as you need particular conditions to get them flying up at your level.

Sitting on the cliff tops on a sunny day just waiting and watching is pure bliss.

Black-legged Kittiwake  Rissa tridactyla

Kittewakes flying for the pure joy of it 

Black-legged Kittiwake  Rissa tridactyla

as are the inquisitive Fulmars who come to take a closer look at you.

Northern Fulmar   Fulmarus Glacialis

You have to be prepared for the unexpected, a rapid change of camera settings may be needed, just focussing on the action may well prove too difficult leaving you somewhat frustrated but if it was easy you probably wouldn't bother.

Squabbling Kittewakes tumble in flight as they take pecks out of each other.

Black-legged Kittiwake  Rissa tridactyla

I totally blew that sequence and that was really annoying!

Still, there's always another day so be grateful for what you did get!

Black-legged Kittiwake  Rissa tridactyla

Whereas the weather wasn't always bright and sunny the fact you are on the island for more than a few hours gives you a far wider window of opportunity so with a bit of luck your moment will come.

A bit of wind at the cliff tops is ideal in holding the birds up to make photography a bit easier some of the time.

Atlantic Puffin  Fratercula arctica

and if you are careful you can actually follow the birds when they take what seem to be exercise flights in an arc around the sea before landing back in the same place.

Razorbill  Alca torda

It makes life much easier as you can be prepared in advance of the action.

Razorbill  Alca torda copy

If the birds fly with the wind it's a more difficult task, particularly with the more aero dynamic Guillemots.

Common Guillemot Uria aalge

But with patience the opportunity eventually presents itself when circumstances are more favourable.

Common Guillemot Uria aalge

Unfortunately very few were bringing back fish to chicks 

Common Guillemot Uria aalge

both Guillemots and Razorbills still having eggs to incubate.

Razorbill  Alca torda

Still there was plenty to keep me occupied and even gave me the opportunity to think of trying for something a little bit arty!

A stunningly beautiful Shag's feathers

European Shag  Phalacrocorax aristotelis

can look more interesting viewed a bit differently.

European Shag  Phalacrocorax aristotelis

A visit to the Isle of May isn't just about the seabird colonies though, there is more to it than that.


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Peter Connan

Magnificent photography throughout!

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A fascinating report with superb photos throughout.

I am pleased there is a tbc!

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Dave Williams

In addition to the seabirds there are a few other breeding birds to be found on the island but they are few and far between and don't necessarily breed every year although in the case of the Barn Swallows

Barn Swallow   Hirundo  Rustica

and Rock Pipits

Eurasian Rock Pipit    Anthus petrosus

it appears they have become permanent fixtures whereas I'm not sure if the Wrens I have seen in the past bred there this year.One species that did try unsuccessfully to nest was a pair of Carrion Crow. Their nest high up on the Main Light was blown away in the storm we experienced which is a benefit to the island as there are enough predators there already without the need for more egg thieves.

Two species I have failed to mention so far are the breeding Oystercatchers of which there are a few.

Eurasian Oystercatcher    Haematopus ostralegus

Oysters being substituted for snails as a large part of their diet too.

One of the benefits of being a late breeding season was that for the first time since the April visit in 2012 I got to see and photograph male Eider ducks.

Common Eider   Somateria mollissima

There were  just one or two still on the island and I was reminded of the eerie sound they make as a mating call.

Common Eider   Somateria mollissima

Possibly the most handsome duck I have seen but they are also feckless fathers it would seem as they desert the island once the eggs are laid and leave the mothers to do all the incubating and rearing.

Common Eider   Somateria mollissima

I don't know how they manage to survive but they never leave their nests it would appear and rely on camouflage for protection from predation. 

Once the ducklings are big enough to move the females gather together to form defensive creches.

Common Eider    Somateria mollissima

although sometimes their sense of positioning doesn't look too sound.

As previously mentioned, the Isle of May has a substantial seal colony, both Common and Grey Seals too.

They can be seen basking on the rocks at low tide but very often are only well viewed from above as was the case with this juvenile.

Common Seal   Phoca Vitulina

Sometimes they come right in to the harbour and are naturally curious about your presence.

Common Seal   Phoca Vitulina

and if you are lucky you might even get to watch one out of water too.

Common Seal   Phoca Vitulina

I have never been lucky enough to witness other cetaceans from the island but sightings of Orca, Bottlenose Dolphin and one or two whale species have been noted on occasion.

The other main mammal inhabitant on the island are the rabbits. 

Rabbit  Isle of May,Scotland 2016

Originally brought to the island by Monks as a food source they are now huge in numbers but it's that reason there are so many Puffins because they use the burrows for nesting.

While we were there this year we also came across a team of "mousers' who were surveying the island population and in the past a friend of mine has conducted a full island survey of the various spider species to be found too!

Spider hunt!

He found quite a lot of previously undiscovered ones too so although the island is fairly small it still has secrets to give up to those who are prepared go searching.

During spring and autumn the Isle of May is a regular stopping off point for migrating birds and that is the most popular time for the ardent birdwatcher to visit in the hopes of catching glimpse of a rare species. I was lucky enough to be on the Island in 2012 when the first ever Black-winged Stilt was recorded.

Black-winged Stilt

A real rarity to Scotland it was a cause of frustration to those on the mainland as the weather prevented the day trippers to sail on most of the few days it stayed.

Various Owl species are recorded on migration but it's a surprise to me that they don't stay longer as there seems to be a plentiful supply of food.To this day the only Long eared Owl I have seen is one that landed on the island again in April 2012.

Long-eared Owl

Part of the duties of residents of the observatory is to keep an accurate log of the species seen, and for those who are qualified to do so, to ring and release them back in to the wild in an attempt to learn more about migration patterns, longevity etc. 

For me though it's not just the wildlife it's the people I have met and befriended too that make the island special.

Helping hands

I have nothing but gratitude to those who so freely give their time to maintaining the observatory and associated workings.Most people who visit probably take all this for granted but on one occasion I visited there was a work party staying with us and doing some work, and hard dirty work it was too.

Home improvements

All I could do was offer to cook, but at least the person travelling with me was competent enough to do some electrical work.

Helping hands

I decided that I would return to lend a bigger hand when the opportunity arose and this I did in 2017 when I visited for a week and helped out as a pass me fetch me kind of helper although I was given free reign with a hammer and nails on the odd occasion!

My role was not exactly key but it gave me a lot of satisfaction to be part of the team that rebuilt one of the traps.

Helping hands

Even though project manager Mark didn't take the news well when told I'd been given a saw.

The responsibility!

I couldn't allow the blog to pass without mention of the support we get from warden David Steel and his team, they help us to transport our baggage, allow the use of a big freezer for food storage and are always willing to share information or offer help in other ways too.

They are there to greet you on to the island and there to say goodbye which always leaves you wanting to go back for more.

 Sad to leave

When I will return depends on so many factors not excluding availability of course. There is always room for volunteers though I'm sure, especially if you have a needed skill. It was my intention to offer once again next spring but my current health problems probably mean that it's impossible.

We'll wait and see.

In the meantime I am just grateful that I had the opportunity once again this year and had some great company in the Low Light to make it one of the most enjoyable visits to date with a fun bunch of people as I'm sure you can tell.

Happy days!

So it's fingers crossed I get to make a return and re-live the thrill and expectations of the next stay as you make the crossing to the little island that is the Isle of May.

Happy to arrive

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Very enjoyable report with simply beautiful pictures.

I imagine the volunteering was very satisfying having got to know the island on previous visits.  It's good to know so many people are prepared to invest so much time and hard work into keeping these wonderfully remote places viable for both the wildlife and us to visit.



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Peter Connan

I think my bucket list has just grown again!


Thank you @Dave Williams!

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  • 3 weeks later...

What a compelling story you have shared with us, @Dave Williams, both in words and in photos. Lucky am I that we love Scotland so visiting it next time, Isle of May may well be on our itinerary. Just one question; you have always stayed there in April/May or is it a place to be visited also outside those two months (for birds, of course)?

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Dave Williams

@xelas I have usually stayed in late June Alex. That is the best time usually  as the birds are all bringing back food to feed the chicks.

Early July would be OK too.

May is better for catching migrants.

I'm not sure about the rest of Scotland though, particularly the western islands where you find lots of other species too.

Edited by Dave Williams
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Thanks, Dave! For the rest of Scotland, we do have an expert here; @Galana probably knew all of Scotland birding sites :D.

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Dave Williams

Scotland is on my list of priorities to visit, maybe next year is the year to do it too.

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